Bob Burkley had an eye for talent in track and field.
As a health and physical education teacher at Newfield and Centereach high schools for over 35 years, Burkley could spot students who had the ability to excel in the sport.
Together with his friend and co-coach Harry Schneider, Burkley built boys team dynasties at Newfield and Centereach. Burkley won 28 league championships and 10 county championships in outdoor track. He coached five national champions, two national record holders and five state record holders, according to Schneider and the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame website.
"He wanted the kids to be good," said Schneider, 76, who now lives and coaches in Arizona. "And if they wanted to be good, they knew they would get good by working with him."
Burkley, a father of four who coached high school track and field on Long Island for 52 years, died on Aug. 17 at his home in Ronkonkoma after an 18-year battle with lymphoma, his family said. He was 82.
"His talent was spotting potential," said Gail Burkley, his wife of 47 years. "Kids that never ran track, he just would see things in them."
Gail Burkley said she’s been contacted by over 1,000 people since the death of her husband, each extolling his virtue as both a coach and visionary.
"The letters I've got from them would say, ‘I never knew I could run track. I never did anything like that, but this guy said I'd be great at the hurdles,’ " she said. "And they’d end up being champions."
Bob Burkley coached track and field at Newfield from 1964-70 and Centereach from 1971-1998. He once won 158 consecutive duel meets over a 26-year period, according to the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame website.
After leaving Centereach, he served as a boys assistant coach at Bayport-Blue Point, Center Moriches and Northport high schools. He was inducted into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.
"As a competitive coach, he was absolutely tenacious," said Harold Schwab, 67, of Mount Sinai, who ran for Burkley at both Newfield and Centereach. "He always covered every single base strategically, always knew exactly who his opponents had, where they had a weakness, where there was a point he could pick up. He always had a big enough team to make sure that he had bodies to put in every conceivable place to [score] every possible point."
Sixty of Bob Burkley’s former athletes went on to become high school track and field coaches, Gail Burkley said. One of the many things they learned from him was attention to detail and meet management, said longtime Longwood High School coach and Burkley disciple Joe Reilly.
"It was, ‘If you’re a coach, you develop a whole team,’ " said Reilly, who ran for Burkley at Centereach and has coached at Longwood for 40 years. "You don’t leave anything open to where some other coach can beat you in that event. Your goal is to build a full team and be competitive in each event. He was very strong in putting that through."
Born May 25, 1939, in the Bronx, Burkley played football, basketball and ran track and field at Great Neck North High School. He played all three sports at Ithaca College.
In addition to his love of the track, Burkley loved the beach. He was a lifeguard at Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Park for over 50 years, and was a longtime lifeguard captain there. He was named New York State Lifeguard of the Year in 2006.
"He ran the beach," Gail Burkley said. "He told who to go where and what to do. He was in charge of everything that happened on the beach. ... I think there was a camaraderie within the lifeguard corps. Whatever he loved, he was good at and he was good at running that beach. I think that he felt good about that."
Whether it was at the beach or on the track, Bob Burkley was a leader who never gave up on people. Constantly on the phone with his current and former athletes, he took pride in every success.
"He was a coach from Day One until his last day," Schwab said. "He was like a second father to all of us."
In addition to his wife, Bob Burkley is survived by his sons Robert Burkley of Brooklyn and Brandon Burkley of North Carolina; daughters Gillian Burkley of Manhasset and Robbyn Liesching of Rhode Island; sister, Marilyn Itskowitch of Roosevelt Island; and eight grandchildren.
A funeral service was held Thursday at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Bay Shore and a memorial service will be held at Robert Moses Field 5 next year. He was cremated, his wife said.